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The First “Rencontres internationales de Reims” on Sustainability Studies - Presentation

To combine the increase of everyone’s wellbeing with sustainability is one of the greatest challenges for contemporary development. According to Amartya Sen, if we have obligations towards future generations, we also have obligations towards current generations.

This issue becomes particularly central in the perspective of 2012, a key year representing a double deadline: that of the new Rio Conference on the environment and development, 20 years after 1992, and that of the formal recognition by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, that we live in a new era: the anthropocene. The increasing responsibility of human societies, not only towards the planet, but also towards our future needs to be highlighted.

It is fundamental to match this responsibility with instruments of governance capable of implementing truly sustainable policies. In fact, the legitimate increase of environmental concerns provokes an increase of technical devices and of regulations. It is not rare that these responses to environmental challenges end up not considering social and spatial justice or to reinforce existing access inequalities.

To be able to conceive this governance, it is essential to rethink the practices of planning. In fact, the choices and the compromises must fit within the construction of a long term democratic society that is performed at the same time from social, environmental and spatial points of view. However, since the end of the 1980s, planning has almost disappeared from public policy under the pressure of a combination of individualism, of the prevalence of urgency, of the research of short term social, political, economic profitability. Moreover, the end of the cold war gave birth to a more uncertain world, where forecasting is more difficult. It is true that planning as it was—normative and based on archaic analytical tools—had several perverse effects, which are at the basis of its failures. Nevertheless, while not “fashionable” anymore, it survives under the masque of proto-planning, using other names: at the local, regional, national (Agenda 21, Climate Plans, etc.), and international level (European Framework Programs—it is the seventh cycle!—, Sustainable Development Strategies, etc.).

It is possible, these days, to conceive a new kind of planning that takes in consideration at the same time social justice and environmental sustainability, based on tools and notions such as:
Coupled human-environment systems (HES) at the heart of sustainability science;
Participatory mechanisms of co-construction of political choices;
New information models integrating uncertainty.

The recurring question of which coordination mechanisms are needed at the local, regional, national or international scale is central here. Decision-making processes need to be understood on the basis of the following questions: Who decides on necessary compromises and on planning mechanisms? Which control and validation methods are possible? These questions are major issues for the theorization of sustainability and for its implementation.

These first “rencontres” mark the launching of a European focal point for Sustainability Science in Reims. Sustainability Science—that can hardly be translated into French—represents an emerging discipline (http://m.pnas.org/content/104/6/1737). Its formal birth dates back to the 2001 Amsterdam Conference Challenges of a Changing Earth. Sustainability science addresses action on sustainable development. This presupposes a multiscale approach—temporal, spatial, and functional—, as well the inclusion of dynamic equilibria, not only of an economic, physical-chemical or biological kind, but also between actors and societies whose interests may be divergent. It correspond to use-inspired research, which is based on the postulate that the greatest scientific achievements in whatever domain take place in the framework of research applied to concrete needs of human societies. This research is, therefore, at the same time “basic” and “applied”. It is about science (natural and social) and technology for sustainability.
This European focal point will be a place for theoretical construction of research programs that privilege interfaces among disciplines. Every year, it will organize a thematic intensive workshop, bringing together a wide partnership.

François Mancebo